On Monday, Jan. 19, 2015, 68 protesters were arrested on the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge after an MLK-day action of nonviolent civil disobedience. Fifty-seven of us were cited and released after being brought to the California Highway Patrol’s police department, while 11 were held overnight in jail. I remember, wrists zip-tied together, seeing a road sign leaning against the side of the room where many of us were temporarily held. “Rough road ahead,” it read.
In the days and weeks that followed, articles and debates discussing our actions — and to an extent campus activism itself — proliferated in The Stanford Daily, as they likely did in classrooms and dorms across campus. Some labelled our tactics as “reckless;” some called us “irritating” and “counterproductive;” still others called for a cautious neutrality. A Stanford Review article, in perhaps one of the most charged positions, argued that the university should pursue Fundamental Standard charges against the Stanford 68, citing the fact that we “broke the law and put the lives of innocent people in danger.”
The Stanford 68 action did not take place in a vacuum. Our civil disobedience brought issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, state-sanctioned violence and occupation to light to acknowledge that these often separated struggles were all interlinked. These connections could not have become clearer than when, in February 2015, the undergraduate Senate voted to pass a resolution divesting from companies complicit in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. At the time, campus erupted into conflict over such issues as the handling of Students for Justice in Palestine’s divestment request and allegations of anti-Semitism in the Students of Color Coalition’s endorsement process.
By spring quarter, many at Stanford were forced to acknowledge what a feature-length Daily article called an “inconvenient truth” — that activism on campus had taken Stanford by storm, and that perhaps it was here to stay.
But another thing that happened last year was that we — the collective we of Stanford University — forgot that organizers and activists were people. Inundated with phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “Justice for Palestine,” “structural oppression” and others, we started seeing activists not as people but as manifestations of those causes they fought for. And looking back, we acknowledge the protests of last year, but not the sleepless nights, skipped classes and hurried meals that went into organizing them. We acknowledge the Stanford 68 action on the bridge, but not the protesters’ tired days spent in court, endless fundraising and mountains of legal work over the following year. We acknowledge the divestment votes, but not the immense emotional trauma of having survived them.
Maybe it’s because we want our activists to seem strong — whether we want to idolize or demonize them. Maybe it’s because if we allow ourselves to see activists as vulnerable, we are thrust into the uncomfortable position of wondering why we are not doing what they do. And maybe this myth of invulnerability is something that we activists use to protect ourselves from hate. Thick skin stops Yik Yak hate and self-care indiscriminately.
So what happens after the demonstration, after the protest, after the campaign? What happens after the 5-hour Energy shots of anger and grief we use to fuel immediate action fade away? Last year, I think many of us decided to take time to heal. We chose to grieve and rest and mourn away from the public eye of Stanford: some of us organized less, some of us left campus; still others disappeared entirely.
I’ve heard some people asking, “What happened to activism after all that action last year?” Part of me wants to counter that this academic year alone has already seen the Students for Justice in Palestine’s silent demonstration in White Plaza, the Transgender Day of Remembrance die-in and rally and the community photo in White Plaza in support of Black students at Mizzou as examples of continuing student activism — but it’s more than just that.
I want to hope that as a community, we are learning from last year how to thoughtfully transform our work into intentional, sustained and direct action, as well as how to acknowledge our grief and apply our labor towards a goal that persists after the event’s end.
And most importantly, how to show up and roll out not only for the events we organize, but for each other as individuals.
Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.